"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Steam Power Helped Build California

by Don Baumgart

Less than a decade after the Gold Rush brought the world to California by wagon, horse, and boat the Golden State was experimenting with a new way to power travel -- steam.

"Last week I passed two days at Marysville, on a visit to the State Agricultural Fair," wrote the editor of the San Francisco Daily Alta, in that paper's edition of September 6, 1858. "I was most agreeably entertained by an examination of the vegetable production and the stock there exhibited.

"But the special object of my visit was to inspect the steam car invented by Mr. Warren Miller, of Marysville, intended to move over common roads."

Resembling a locomotive in appearance, Miller's steam car caught the fancy of the newspaperman. "These wagons will be highly useful...where railroads cannot be cheaply constructed and where mules and horses command a high price.

"Miller's steam wagon was put in motion last Friday evening in the presence of a large crowd of spectators and moved along the streets, and turned the corners without difficulty."

The inventor called his machine a Traction Road Locomotive.

Eventually it would be the gasoline engine that displaced the horse as the motive power for road wagons and farm machines, but for a while it looked like steam might be the answer.

California inventors flooded the U.S. Patent Office with plans for the steam revolution. They were from Sacramento, San Francisco, and Chico, to name a few of the machine shop locations that produced steam engines.

Many of them lived only as drawings, but quite a few, like Warren Miller's Traction Road Locomotive, took to the roads, fields and forests.

In the Sierra Mountains of northern California the Roberts and Doan Traction Engine was used to haul logs and lumber for more than 20 years. The giant steam machine weighed 30 tons and cost $28,000. One survived until the 1920s, its boiler finally being put to work in Sierra County's Loyalton to power a sawmill.

While steam powered vehicles never did take over the roads, they did help to build a few. The Enright Road Roller of 1885 was named "Billy the Masher" by its inventor. The Atlas Iron Works Road Roller came from San Francisco.

Steam plows for farm work were the next application to be explored by California inventors. The Wadsworth Rotary Spader, built in Marysville, made its debut in 1860. A later version was described in a newspaper ad as a "very good digger and lump crusher."

The interests of steam machine inventors in Martinez, San Francisco, and Oroville followed suit, shifting from roads to farms, producing the Standish Steam Plow in 1867, the Marquis Steam Plow and the Locher Steam Plow a year later.

An ad touted the features farmers could find: "Revolution in Plowing. Best's Traction Engine. The Monarch of the Field. It will do the work of 100 horses."

More than a dozen steam plows were offered to farmers who might want to retire their plow horses. In a less slick advertising age, most were simply named after their inventors.

In the mid to late 1880s steam found its most practical, and perhaps most long-lasting, farming application. Portable steam engines appeared to power threshing machines at harvest time. Steam-powered combines arrived to mechanize harvest chores on California farms in the early to late 1890s.

We now live in a time when consideration is being given to alternative sources of energy; electric cars and hydrogen-powered fuel cell automobiles appear at car shows and a few even make it onto the highways. But it's a slow, small, some call it "reluctant" effort on the part of the gasoline engine addicted automobile industry.

Warren Miller, where are you and your Traction Road Locomotive now that we need you?


Copyright Don Baumgart, 2003

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